Emma Batchelor on her intensely personal, Vogel Prize-winning debut, ‘Now That I See You’

Now That I See You is Emma Batchelor’s stunning autofiction debut. We chatted with the author about exploring love and relationships from myriad perspectives and winning the Vogel Prize.

At the time of our conversation, Emma Batchelor is in a whirlwind. Publicity, adulation, winning a prize. Who would’ve guessed that she would have found herself in this position as a result of the deepest possible mining of her personal life and closest relationship?

This is exactly what happened for the debut author of Now That I See You (Allen & Unwin); she won the prestigious Vogel Prize — a $20,000 award for an unpublished manuscript from an author under 35. The book is an autofiction chronicle of Batchelor’s relationship with Jesse Petrie, her long-standing partner, who underwent a process of gender transition.

In our chat, we covered what it means to be catapulted to the centre of the literary world, lessons on love, and writing yourself to a healthier place.

Emma Batchelor, now that i see you
Photo: Dion Georgopoulos

HAPPY: Firstly, a double dose of congratulations. A debut novel and the Vogel Prize! What does it mean for your future — or potentially your next project — now that you’ve won the Vogel?

EMMA: I think I still can’t fully comprehend that I did win the Vogel. So I have to let that settle in to know what that’ll mean. But I found out in August last year, so I’ve had to keep it a secret all this time. And I think back then, it felt like a very abstract thing, some mornings I’d feel that I’d woken up and it was all a dream, but things kept happening. Now it’s released and people know and can see the physical book. It just feels so much more tangible and real.

I was writing a different book before I started this story, and I’d really like to come back to that now. And I think having won the Vogel now and receiving so much media attention this week, I feel really excited to come back to something new and know I already have the support of my publisher.

HAPPY: About that next project: considering that Now That I See You is so closed to your lived experience, is this new one something completely different?

EMMA: Yeah, it is completely different, and I suppose pure fiction, as opposed to what I’ve written in Now That I See You. I think it has been confronting to write something so personal, and to now have that out there, and for people to be able to, I guess, think about me and comment on me as both the person and the writer, because of how close a lot of the content is to my life.

So I think it will probably be a relief in some ways to return to focus on something that has fictional characters. They’re not me and there’s some distance.

HAPPY: Now That I See You is in the unusual form of autofiction. Why did you decide to go with that form for this particular story?

EMMA: When my partner Jesse had left and I was alone, and I just had so much time to try and fill, and I had depression at the time, I just couldn’t write any more. I couldn’t read any more either, so I just had so much time, and none of the usual ways I filled it were available to me. But everything that happened between us was all that I could think about.

So I started journalling, and that was a way back into writing for me. I was journalling and just thinking about everything, and I was obsessively reading back over our emails and messages together. And I started pulling them together, just for myself to try and make sense of what had happened, and after looking at that, I really felt like there was something in it, and that it could be good.

So I started thinking about what that might look like to an external reader, and what would be the best way to present the story to them. I thought about memoir, and I don’t read many memoirs really and I found I wasn’t very interested in it. The year before I read Motherhood by Sheila Heti, and Crudo by Olivia Laing, and they were both described as autofiction. And I’d never read anything like either of them before. I found Crudo in particular really challenging, and I wasn’t even sure I liked it, but I thought about it so much afterwards.

And Motherhood, I just loved. So I really liked the idea of using myself as a character. I really wanted to present it as fiction. I like the blurriness of it. I felt a real responsibility to be truthful about what happened, given how politicised transgender identities are and also how stigmatised mental health was — and still is.

HAPPY: The book deals with your partner Jesse’s gender identity, do you feel you also went on a personal journey of transformation through writing the book?

EMMA: One hundred per cent. Mine was more to do with my sexuality, and how I perceived it and thought about it before. But also, I’d never been mentally ill before, so it took me a long time to realise that I was unwell. Then once I did, trying to understand what it meant to me, and what I could do to try and get better. I did a lot of therapy, and I was on medication, and that really helped me. But they were all things that I hadn’t experienced before and I didn’t feel able to talk to my friends about at the time. And I hadn’t really had any friends who’d talk to me about that sort of stuff before, so that was a journey in itself.

We’d been in a heterosexual relationship, and I’d always thought of myself as heterosexual, and I’d not really questioned it before. I think I’d just gone with it: as a woman, you like men. But then, as Jesse changed, and as I changed, I realised that my sexuality wasn’t as fixed as I thought, and it was more fluid, and it did lead me to go back and look at perhaps what had drawn me to Jesse in the beginning, as well as other attractions that I’d had that I just hadn’t thought about before.

HAPPY: Do you think writing the book was a way you could empathise with her more deeply, or were you still trying to maintain a ‘writerly’ distance from the subject?

EMMA: I think I’m an empath, so I tend to empathise with everything and everyone too much and too readily! So I’m not sure the writing process facilitated that per se, but it helped to make sense of it for an external reader. When you’re thinking for yourself, you just fill in the gaps, and kind of know, and often don’t have to interrogate as safely. So maybe it made me empathise with myself more because I’m very hard on myself. I think it made me be kinder to myself.

HAPPY: Were there times where you felt you could actually give up on the project?

EMMA: Weirdly, no. Sometimes it was really hard because I was still really unwell at the time when I was trying to write. And I didn’t really realise I’d want to write about it so soon, and from within it. But I am so glad that I did because I think it helped me capture the viscerality of it in a way. I think, I wouldn’t be able to do as well now, coming from a better mental health space. It’s just harder for me to think back on how I felt at the time.

At times, it was really hard, and as I was getting better, it got harder, because as I’d look back, I’d really find myself just slipping back into that headspace. So, I’d have to give myself a break and then come back to it again. But sometimes I noticed I found a real distance or otherworldliness from myself, and I could write about it, and just be like, “This is sad about these two other people, but I’ll just observe it.” And I’d lose that connection between it being me, or us.

HAPPY: You explore love through the prisms of relationships, gender, sexuality, and mental health, among other issues. What has the process taught you about love?

EMMA: Jesse and I talk about it a lot, because we have very different thoughts on love, and approaches to love. I think I’m very verbal in how I express my love, and I think coming through this, and how Jesse and I have found each other again, and the way that we’re trying to rebuild our relationship now, I really reflect more on how love requires work and communication.

Not that I look my love for granted for Jess before — but I just took it as a solid and a given. And I think — partly because I was unwell and partly because of everything else that was going on — I just didn’t have the capacity to do the work, to really listen to her, and to act on it, and to be in an equal partnership. Now we have that capacity, and I find that so rewarding, on top of the natural base of love we have.

HAPPY: For that reason alone it’s all worthwhile, right?

EMMA: I hope so! It’s so strange because when I writing it I just had no idea of what would happen. It’s been challenging and it has made me vulnerable, but even just the personal aspects of the exploration — aside from the writing of the book — makes it all worth it.

Now That I See You is out now via Allen & Unwin.